Another Nuremberg trial
Rob Knight sees another chapter of history rewritten, as ex-East German
leader Erich Honecker is given the same treatment as the Nazis
German conservatives have been clamouring since reunification for Erich
Honecker and other leaders of the old East German state (GDR) to be given
a collective trial, as the Nazi leaders were at Nuremberg after the Second
World War. Now, with Honecker's enforced return from Russia, it looks as
if they are going to get their way. Honecker and other top leaders of the
GDR are to be tried for the killing of those shot while trying to cross
the Berlin Wall from East to West Germany.
The comparison with the Nuremberg trials is an important one for the German
right. It has long maintained that Germany should not be ashamed about its
Nazi past. Its equation of Honecker and the other old Stalinists with the
Nazi leaders sends a clear message to the world. The German right is saying
that there was nothing unique about the Nazis, and that others - especially
communists - are capable of equal, if not greater, barbarities. The conclusion
of the right is that Germany should no longer be singled out as a nation
with a uniquely barbarous past.
This is a notion which the German right has been peddling for years. Until
recently it was a point of view that did not fit in with official
acceptance of national guilt by the West German state. The evocation of
the Nuremberg trials is particularly telling here, as it was at Nuremberg
that the Nazi leaders were put on trial in front of the whole world, and
where the Nazis' war guilt was settled.
Since the reunification of Germany, however, the attitude of the establishment
to the past has been changing rapidly. Chancellor Helmut Kohl and others
have been making it clear that they are no longer prepared to allow the
past to weigh down so heavily on what they can do in the present.
Kohl's former foreign minister, Rupert Scholz, has gone so far as to claim
that the Honecker trial would be more legitimate than Nuremberg.
'For the second time in German history we face the judgment and punishment
of a totalitarian regime. But between the Nazi trials and today's there
is a decisive difference. The Nuremberg trial was the exercise of their
rights by the victors in the war. What we have today is not comparable,
it is not a form of 'justice for the winners' even if some incorrigibles
claim that it is.' (Welt am Sonntag, 3 August 1992)
Scholz went on to point out that the German courts must take the place of
an international court of justice, which does not exist. So the message
is not only that Nuremberg was not real justice, but also that Germany must
take on the role of international arbiter in these matters.
Scholz and others like him are no longer isolated voices on the right. The
rewriting of Nazi history has proceeded from the arcane journals of the
far right into the fabric of German politics.
The conservatives have long argued that the war, and by implication Nazism,
was a justified (or at worst, an understandable) struggle against the
evils of eastern communism. This viewpoint has been strengthened by the
bankruptcy and final collapse of the Soviet bloc. Today the right feels
able to argue that Nazism was in fact better than Stalinism, because under
Nazism the capitalist economy was not destroyed. The assumptions behind
this argument are now so widely accepted that they have begun to be incorporated
in the legal system - for example, in the new rules relating to ethnic Germans.
In an attempt to cut off the mass immigration of ethnic Germans from eastern
Europe, the government has instituted strict rules to determine who is and
who is not really German. One of these rules states that nobody can claim
German citizenship if they or their ancestors fought against Germany during
the Second World War. This means that those who fought in the anti-Nazi
resistance, for example the free Polish Army, are automatically excluded
The redefinition of German citizenship effectively links the idea of
being German to the Nazi regime, and turns the dominant assumptions of the
postwar period on their head. Now it is not the Nazis, but those who opposed
them, who are considered guilty of an offence against Germany. This is just
one of many ways in which the Nazi period is being normalised.
Why is it so important that Germany should be able to come to terms with
the past? The negative images which are associated with the Nazis are a
continuous burden for the modern German authorities. The need to cleanse
the past is particularly important now that Germany is beginning to take
its place as a great power in the world once more.
At a time when the German authorities are trying to establish themselves
as a major player on the world stage, it is galling for them continually
to hear other Western powers compare tinpot dictators like Saddam Hussein
or Slobodan Milosevic to Hitler, or warn of the imminent return of Nazism
every time Germany does something they do not like (like putting up interest
But the real problems lie in the sphere of domestic politics. The end of
the Cold War and reunification means that the anti-communist politics
which gave the German establishment its authority in the postwar years have
come to the end of the road. Yet Kohl has no new programme with which to
replace old-fashioned anti-communism. As a result, the state is suffering
from a condition of political exhaustion, which means that it has no political
vision to inspire and unify the German people. Despite Germany's emergence
as a world power, the political elite has been losing its grip on society
at home. The German authorities urgently need something with which to cohere
a new base of support for themselves.
The government's response has been to try to develop a new progressive nationalist
image, in which the intervention in Yugoslavia, the rewriting of the past
and vestigial anti-communism all play a role. The prospect of a Honecker
trial is particularly suited to this project. By linking Stalinism and Nazism
together in a new Nuremberg, it could enable the German authorities to kill
two birds with one stone. They can attempt to milk remaining anti-communist
sentiments, and at the same time play down the Nazi past by relativising
it as a response to communism.
Despite these potential advantages, the German government seems uncertain
about whether it has done the right thing in bringing Erich Honecker back
to Germany to face trial. Chancellor Kohl expressed himself quietly satisfied
with Honecker's arrival, but other leading government members have expressed
worries about the impact a trial could have. Why?
First, the government has good reason to fear that the revelations at the
trial could embarrass it. It is only five years since Honecker, as
head of the GDR, was welcomed with full state honours to West Germany by
Kohl himself. It is an open secret that Kohl's government provided Honecker
not only with diplomatic recognition, but with a complex web of financial
arrangements. This was despite the fact that the Kohl government was supposedly
committed to the destruction of the East German state.
Second, there is a danger that the trial will backfire. In a situation
in which the German government lacks public authority, there could be serious
questioning of the legitimacy of its actions. One influential commentator,
Rudolf Augstein in Der Spiegel, has already pointed out that legally
the government is on shaky ground in putting the head of state of another
country on trial. He argues that if Germany has the right to put Honecker
on trial, it should also put the British government on trial for its shoot-to-kill
policy in Northern Ireland.
Many Germans both east and west are thoroughly disillusioned with the political
elite. A recent poll showed that 65 per cent thought that all existing politicians
were in the wrong job. In eastern Germany, where the economy has not recovered
after the mass privatisation process, polls show that 30 per cent of people
are willing to support a party which represents the interests of easterners
alone, even if it is led by the old Stalinists from the GDR. This bore out
the result of the May local elections in east Berlin, where the former Stalinists
got over 30 per cent of the vote.
In these circumstances, unlikely as it may seem, there is even a possibility
that sections of German society may openly resent the circus of the Honecker
trial. This would mark one of the most improbable 'comebacks' in modern
political history. All of which goes to show that rewriting history cannot
on its own solve the problems of the present.
The fact that the German authorities are so obsessed with the past is a
clear indication that even the most prosperous capitalist elite in Europe
has no faith in the future, and lacks anything with which to inspire or
unite its people. It is a sign of the times that the German government which
wants to promote itself as the new European superpower has to stage a show-trial
for a doddering old Stalinist in order to bolster its authority at home.
Honecker is brought home for trial, but it's history that's
in the dock
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 47, September 1992